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Ask Jon 20: Gratitude, Thanks, Good Tidings, and Cheer


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/10

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about Thanksgiving.

*Interview conducted on November 23, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Ok, so, this will be a session for Thanksgiving. So our topic today is gratitude, not towards some thing, but about things. In particular the basics of life in most societies being food, we can add shelter and in a modern society, the ability to read, literacy. So, what are your thoughts about Thanksgiving as a time for gratitude without the need for faith? Just a nice time to enjoy life and be grateful.

Jonathan Engel: Yeah, it’s always been and still is my favorite holiday. Partly because it’s not really a religious holiday. I mean, some people make it so because they say they give their thanks to a deity or something like that. But there’s no requirement for that.

And certainly, didn’t stand from any religious, particular religious, tradition, more like a harvest’s tradition where you celebrate the harvest. Now, of course, most people like me, I live in the middle of the biggest city in North America. I’m not a farmer.

But there’s still a certain it’s still nice to have that day where you take a step back and eat. And you think about again, I like giving; I don’t have gratitude to a deity because I don’t believe in any deities.

But I do understand quite well that I am fortunate. That I have a roof over my head, and I have enough food to eat, and a few bucks left over for this and that. And I have an understanding that not everybody does. And so to me, it’s nice to intertwine those things.

Those on the one hand, yes, I do feel fortunate for what I have, etc. But also, it’s a good time to remember the people who don’t have much. And to do what you can, maybe, it’d be a donation or something like that to a group that helps people. There are various other ways that you can give back.

But also remembering, part of it is just trying, I don’t want to be political about this necessarily. But trying to elect people who understand that that’s an issue, that’s a problem. And that this is something that, in my name, I want addressed.

The number of people who lack literacy skills in this country is large. So, basically, that means people can’t read and write. Essentially, it’s what you would call a shanda, a shame for our country that we allow such things to happen.

And that we don’t care enough about our fellow people. And that’s not a religious thing. It bothers me that a lot of people who are religious and assume that they care about other people. And that sort of benefit of the doubt is not given to a secularist, an atheist like me. But I do.

I think it’s important, again, to take a step back and say to yourself, “What can I do to make this place better?” Because not only if you help your fellow person, especially in something like this, especially when you talk about children, you’re talking about nutritional needs and educational needs. You do that.

And not only will you be a good person, and help the individual, but society benefits so much from having people who reach their own potential because when they reach their potential; it helps everybody else. And so, I think it’s part of the reason why I really like Thanksgiving.

But it’s not necessary for me. I don’t give thanks to a deity. I can give thanks to people I know. Like my wife, for my kids, they help make my life really worthwhile and help make it what it is. But there’s no artificial deity up there whose doing these things.

You want to thank God for the food, while I can thank the farmers for the food. And I can thank everybody else in the food supply chain for the food. And I’m just grateful that I have the money to buy the food. But I also understand that there are people who don’t have that.

And it’s important to remember them. And so, like I said, do what we can to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore, that every child in this country gets a quality education. Every child in this country has enough food. Because kids, the lack of nutrition is a serious, serious problem in this country.

And a lack of nutrition means that a child won’t be able to learn. You can’t learn if you’re hungry. You can’t learn if you live in this homeless shelter, it’s very difficult. My wife teaches some kids whose families are living in shelters. It’s very chaotic and very difficult.

And it’s something that we as a people should commit ourselves to change. That’s how I feel about it. In this country, Lyndon Johnson started what he called the war on poverty in the 1960s. But at some point, I guess, maybe in the Reagan 80s, it seems like we just surrendered.

And said, “Oh, well, we can’t do anything about that.” That’s a load of nonsense. It takes a will and a belief that it’s important to do it. And if Thanksgiving is the day that reminds me of that, then I think that’s a good thing. I think every so often we should be reminded of something like that.

But I don’t want to get too austere about it. I like Thanksgiving, too. I don’t overeat. Maybe, at least a little bit, but also just spending the time with family and all the rituals that we go through.

There’s certain music we listen to on Thanksgiving. There were TV shows we watch on Thanksgiving. Because it’s just Thanksgiving and that’s what we do. And there’s a certain continuity that has a kind of nice feel to it and doesn’t have to be associated with religion.

Jacobsen: John, thanks so much.

Engel: It’s my pleasure, Scott. Listen, you take care.

Jacobsen: Thank you. You, too. Take care. Talk to you next week.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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